August 27th, 2009
Paulie’s: Eat, Eat and Eat Some More
In 7 Words: Ristorante, Italiano, Neighborhood, Shortbread, Heaping, Solitary, Mangi
It’s easy to gravitate to a place that seems familiar. Even if that familiarity stems from a childhood nickname that somehow stuck through three moves and four levels of school. Such is the case with Paulie’s an Italian restaurant that has been open for over a decade. Saying that it has carved its niche in the Montrose neighborhood is an understatement. Paulie’s became one of the neighbors a long time ago.
The impending Friday night, full of festivities, has me a bit anxious. One moment I’m ready to take on the world. The next all I want is to turn my cell on silent and absorb whatever movie Showtime wants to throw at me. The back and forth is all for naught because one overwhelming factor motivates me: Hunger.
Tonight I’m alone in my quest for food and eating alone has always been somewhat of a nerve-wracking experience for me. In the same vein as going to the movies or a concert without a friend in the wings, there’s always a bit of apprehension. But, I suck it up fire up the car and pull out of the driveway to encounter the famed Paulie’s without a sidekick.
Nearing 8:30PM I’m cutting it a bit short only now having made up my mind. The restaurant stops taking orders around 9:00PM, though, if worse comes to worse I can always take my meal To-Go. What would be the fun in writing an experience about a restaurant without taking a seat and soaking up the vibe?
Traveling the familiar strip of Westheimer between Dunlavy and Shepherd (home of previously scooped Empire Cafe) I come upon the retro-looking Lanier Middle School on the left and the strip that holds Paulie’s on the other side. I pass the restaurant to take a right on Driscoll where there’s a small parking lot for customers. It seems the same red Nissan Xterra is in this parking lot every time I come. At some point I’m gonna have to set up a stake out to discover who owns the vehicle. Asking anyone who works here would just be too easy.
The entrance rests under the suspended awning that runs along the front a part of the side of the building. The corner, truncated, holds the gateway into Paulie’s, glass doors with their logo of four circles intersected by a square etched into each pane. Speculatively I decide that the shape must represent plates too big for a table no doubt. It is another question easily answered that will never be asked.
Unlike Cafe Rabelais, you can’t miss the menu here. Bright, red, shiny and taking up the wall until the counter it demands your attention. Salads, pastas, panini and entrees are listed for you in white lettering. Some things catch my gaze more than others. A Grilled Shrimp BLT in particular jumps out and stirs my imagination. Another, Spaghetti and Meatballs just brings me back to visions of Mom’s heaping bowl of dinner.
With only two more patrons waiting to order before it’s my turn. I don’t want to dawdle when it comes to my turn. Being the final guest to leave the restaurant, the bane at closing time, is not my goal. A quick order will mean a speedy departure and less of a footprint left upon Paulie’s.
I decide quickly and order the Ceasar Salad and the Penne and Shrimp Genovese as soon as it becomes my turn tacking on iced tea to complete the request. The cashier asks, “do you want the ‘light ‘or ‘regular’ portions?” In this case, I know that the “light” portions are more than sufficient. The “regular” portions are food-coma-inducingly large for one man.
They hand me a buzzer and a glass filled with ice as we wait for the credit card machine to legitimize our transaction. Tonight, the modem doesn’t work so well and it has instead decided to send my transaction by Carrier Pigeon. Finally, printer begins to unroll it’s spool and we can all move on with our lives.
The iced tea dispenser is right around the corner, just beyond the display case for the shortbread cookies, nee, the delicious looking shortbread cookies. They are the only things in this restaurant that outshine the monstrous menu. I wonder how much cash I have and if I should get a cookie for the road when I’m done.
I help myself to some iced tea adding a splash of lemonade to top it off: A makeshift Arnold Palmer with more parts Arnold than Palmer. The tables around are mostly empty; surprising for a Friday night. Six or seven tables have people including mine as I sit down and pull out the book that I’ve been carrying under my arm. Always having been a people-watcher I don’t necessarily want to come off as the creepy guy, eating dinner by himself late on Friday night, staring down the other tables looking like I just want acceptance.
The entire south side of Paulie’s is a wall of windows etched with the same circles-square logo. There are a couple of two-seater tables on the sidewalk for people choosing to eat outdoors. At this late hour, however, the tables are already cleared of accessories and awaiting their migration back indoors for the night. All the interior walls have been stripped of paint leaving only exposed brick and a thin high tension steel wire system used to hang the art work. The galleries that they hang here have ranged from impressionist style landscapes to close-up photography of cows. Tonight they are small water colors with the handwritten location and date at the bottom. All that I see say “Venice” which adds to the Italian flavor of the restaurant.
Just as I get a chance to open the cover of my book, the coaster-shaped buzzer comes to life on top of the hard Formica table top. On top of the case of shortbread cookies that still taunt me, a black cafeteria tray holds a plate full of leafy greens waiting for me to accept. The server (my cashier from earlier) tells me to keep my buzzer as my penne hasn’t left the kitchen yet.
Back at the table I lay out my napkin across my lap, take the fork in my right hand, ready to stab at croutons and delicious roughage, while holding the page in my book with my left hand. The urge to glance around is too much. I put the book down and concentrating on salad and people-watching. There are only two or three tricky croutons left on my plate, somehow escaping the prongs of my utensil when the buzzer goes off, once again notifying me that my main course is now ready.
Green is the theme of my meal tonight. The creamy pesto sauce smothers every square inch of penne and grilled, butterflied shrimp. I grab the tray that also sports a small dish with a slice of Tuscan bread cut in half to keep it confined to the smallish saucer. Yes, even the light portions can be too big for one man. I dive into the dish anyway, undaunted. The pasta begins to disappear and one by one each of the five shrimp disappear from the plate until there is nothing left but a lake of creamy pesto; a perfect dip for the bread that lays in wait.
Full, leaning back in my chair, I let out a sigh as if just accomplishing a great feat. My phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s a friend wondering when I’m going to be at Union Bar for the birthday party. I push my chair back from the table and stand up to leave. The remaining people in the restaurant are finishing up their food and conversations as sounds of cleaning escape from behind the counter. I pass those shortbread cookies one more time, too stuffed to even think about them and walk out the door to a solitary “goodnight” from the cashier, the only person paying attention to my exit.
Where – Montrose (1834 Westheimer, Houston, Texas 77008) View Map
What – Italiano Ristorante with Heaping Portions
Wear – Casual, Dressy or Any Combination of the Two
Who – Large Parties, Quaint Parties and Anything in Between
How Much – Much Salad, Much Pasta and Drink Almost $20
When – Mon-Sat 11:00AM – 9:00PM; Closed Sunday
Web – www.pauliesrestaurant.com